"Speaking for myself, I would not be a martyr for my art. If I were forbidden to draw, I would sing, dance, compose, play a piano, shoot a film, or write the Great American novel, play, short story, or poem. But I would not die. I would be like a river, blocked in one area, I would change course and create a new channel. The creative force is unstoppable."
Dear James, Letters To A Young Illustrator
Recently I had the privilege of asking R. O. Blechman a few questions. Mr. Blechman is an award winning author, illustrator and animator. His work has graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine 14 times. Blechman's The Soldier's Tale won an Emmy and, in 1999, R. O. Blechman was inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame. In 2002 the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his animated films. Recently, Mr. Blechman received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society.
Congratulations on receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from The National Cartoonists Society. I read that you hadn't originally intended to be an artist and that you were surprised when you were accepted into art school. What other options had you considered before art school?
I considered no other options to becoming an artist before or just after art school (which was not really an art school. The High School of Music and Art only gave an extra hour each day to the normal academic curriculum). After I left college, I was drafted into the army, and given the possibility of going to film school in Astoria (in Long Island City). I declined, and that has been a lifelong regret. If I had accepted that offer I probably would have had a film career-- probably (but not necessarily) in live action.
Would you consider yourself a cartoonist who also illustrates or an illustrator who also draws cartoons?
I consider myself an artist who sometimes illustrates, and sometimes cartoons. The categories are arbitrary and fungible. Saul Steinberg often called himself a cartoonist. It's a pity that there's a distinction between so-called fine art and the minor arts (something I probably alluded to in "Dear James").
Charles Schulz said, “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw every day without repeating himself.” How do you keep from repeating yourself?
Unlike Charles Schulz, I don't draw every day and I do repeat myself often-- varying themes, and that is change enough for me (Morandi only had one theme-- Chardin also, to a great extent. But what beautiful variations on those themes!).
As a teacher myself, it is interesting that you went from art school to illustration to one day teaching at The School of Visual Arts. Can you tell me a little about the curriculum you used in your Cartooning Class?
I would give the class an assignment, and whenever possible, something "real"-- that is, something that might eventually get published if an art director accepted the work. That made the assignment the same "real life" experience that professionals encountered (I was fortunate to have known of art directors and publications-- usually non-profit ones, willing to give my students the opportunity to have their work published.
The assignments would be handed in, put on a wall, and the students would critique them as well as myself (and a fellow I taught with. We shared the class).
What would a typical lesson plan/assignment look like?
My most interesting assignment was one I learned from Henry Wolf-- a great art director, by the way. He asked his class to submit a design or drawing on the subject of "confusion." Predictably, most of the class submitted 'confused" visuals. And Henry would say, "Art is
never confused. It is always harmonious otherwise it is not art."
Have you considered writing a manual of style for illustrators, something similar to Strunk and White's Elements of Style for writers?
No, I have too much other work to do a variation on Strunk and White, but thanks for the suggestion.
Of your books, Dear James is my favorite. I read excerpts from it to my students. In it you wrote, “There should be a museum of failed art”, an idea my students particularly liked. What artists would you like to see represented in that museum?
I think most artists should empty their waste baskets , and that would constitute failed art. I know that I usually have to do a drawing over and over and over until it's "right." My first attempts are often god-awful.
I was taught in art school that the difference between Illustration and 'High' Art is that the purpose of illustration is to “sell a point.” Do you agree?
I would modify that. The purpose of illustration is to make a point. It has to "read."
You have worked with several great artists over the years. Who has been your favorite to work with?
The only other artist I worked with (and this was about 10 years ago) was Christoph Neimann, who had a great mind and eye. An unbeatable combination. But come to think of it, when I do my animation I work with two animators who both have a marvelous story sense and exceptional drawing skills. They really make a lot of "my own" art better. They do the same for other illustrators they animate-- for example, back in the 70s my animation studio produced a minute film using the artwork of Maurice Sendak-- and my studio work looked better than his originals-- thanks to the animator and, a person who watercolored the drawings.
My students are curious about two things-
Who is your favorite artist?
My favorite artist is Steinberg, but I obviously admire others. One was an artist who worked in the 20s and 30s-- Hendrick Willem van Loon. Very minimal art, but beautifully designed. As for contemporary illustrators, I'm in awe of Edward Sorel (who has a great exhibit now hanging at the SVA gallery on 26th Street), and the poster art of James MacMullan (I'm not crazy about his children's books, however).
What is your favorite book?
My favorite book used to be "The Education of Henry Adams." But now I have too many to list as "most favorite."
One last question, what inspires you?
What inspires me? This is an embarrassing question to answer honestly, but here goes. To see my name in print (next to a good piece of art), and to see my bank balance move from negative to positive.
Freedom From Fear
R. O. Blechman
Thank you, Mr. Blechman.
Here is a gem from the past:
Here is a gem from the past: